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Film Noir: Cinema as Mourning

Double Indemnity (1944)

Office memorandum, Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager. Los Angeles, July 16th, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. I don’t like the word confession…  When it came to picking the killer, you picked the wrong guy, if you know what I mean. Want to know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff, insurance agent, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars – until a little while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

I am currently reading a book on French cinema by American academic T. Jefferson Kline titled Unravelling French Cinema (John Wiley & Sons 2010).  As the title indicates, Kline by examining French films from the early 1930s to the present day explores the nature of French cinema.  His guiding thesis is that French films are more concerned with the nature of cinema than with narrative for its own sake.  It is a complex analysis and the author’s scholarly approach makes the book daunting reading.

Kline initiates an intriguing discussion of cinema as a process of mourning, which goes not only to the examination of certain films but to the very nature of cinema.   He focuses on art-house films and strangely mentions French poetic realism only as an aside.  The great poetic realist films of the 1930s are not discussed, nor the French noirs of the 1940s and 1950s.  The fatalism of these films to me seems germane to any discussion of cinema as mourning, and to an understanding of film noir.

Let us take these word’s from Kline’s book:  “We can think of many films that move us precisely because the main character must die, and so we mourn… we must realize that cinema in its most essential form is an image of something that is no longer there.  Like a cherished photograph, we can look at it over and over again, but we can never make its subjects return to the physical form they enjoyed when the film was made.” (p. 334)

This is the very nature of the fatalism inherent in poetic realism and in film noir: a doomed protagonist battling the fates.   The very use of flashback in many noirs reinforces this fatalism – the fate of the protagonist is known from the outset.  Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) are the definitive flashback noirs.

Something to think about.

The Killers (1946)

1 Comment

  1. D

    I posted the quote you highlighted here, with a link back to this page.

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